Collateral Impact: Cannabis industry a growing political force beneath the Gold Dome in Denver

The marijuana industry in Colorado has grown quickly into a potent lobbying force at the Capitol.

Marijuana businesses, law firms, consultants and trade organizations spent at least $720,000 on lobbyists during the 2018 legislative session that ran through May 9, according to an analysis by The Gazette.

That was more than oil and gas ($530,000). It was more than grocery and liquor interests combined ($560,000).

The sheer number of marijuana-related bills partly accounts for the big spending. Legislators and lobbyists tackled more than 30 affecting the marijuana and hemp industries.

In addition, a diverse group of more than 20 marijuana-related businesses jumped into the fray. Stores, growers, delivery services, hemp farmers and law firms all used lobbyists to support, oppose or monitor bills.

At times, law enforcement officials felt badly outgunned at the Capitol.

“You can’t go down there and not know they have a small army of lobbyists,” said Chris Johnson, executive director of County Sheriffs of Colorado. “Our little piddly budget can’t compare to them.”

Several of Colorado’s top marijuana lobbyists did not respond to interview requests.

Cindy Sovine, by contrast, passionately praised the efforts she and others made to treat marijuana more like other legal products.

“I’m actually kind of thrilled to see there are a lot of lobbyists at the table right now,” she said. “We are representing businesses that are trying to run a business. Marijuana is the single most heavily regulated industry in the world. More than alcohol. More than oil and gas. Far more than any other substance in commerce today.”

Sovine traces her own involvement with the marijuana business to her father’s battle with cancer. He had reached the final stages of a fatal lymphatic cancer when her mother made a pot of tea from marijuana and put it in his feeding tube. Her father ultimately managed to “walk and talk and go to the bathroom on his own,” she said, dying with dignity.

A lifelong Republican, Sovine quit lobbying for hospital and pharmaceutical clients and turned her skills to marijuana policy debates.

“This is not a drug to be afraid of,” she said.

Sovine billed clients $100,000 for her lobbying efforts, according to The Gazette analysis.

But she said she was proudest of her pro bono work on two other bills. One authorized medical marijuana for autism. The other permitted school nurses to administer medical marijuana, a measure that passed despite widespread opposition from school districts.

The Gazette analysis also found that:

– At least 30 lobbyists represented marijuana interests at the Capitol.

– The biggest spender was the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, which put $119,000 into lobbying.

– The industry came away with mixed results despite its spending.

The industry beat back a proposal to chemically mark marijuana sold in dispensaries, but lost its bid to allow home delivery of marijuana products.

Legislators killed a bill to permit pot smoking clubs but passed another to allow dispensary tasting rooms. Gov. John Hickenlooper vetoed both the autism bill and the tasting rooms bill.

State Sen. Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican, sponsored the legislation to chemically mark marijuana.

He said he decided to seek “a scientific way to identify products after getting government agency estimates that 40 percent to 60 percent of the marijuana in Colorado is grown illegally.”

He envisioned “sugars or something like that that is totally benign” as the chemical marker.

His legislation died in committee.

Dispensaries feared they would get blamed for trafficking if their products were seized in another state, he said, and “police would come to my shop and shut me down. There’s sort of a political paranoia there.”

Sovine contends spraying a chemical marker on marijuana actually could drive more consumers to the black market.

And in her view, dispensaries had a right to fear the consequences. If a store makes a legal marijuana sale to a customer who gets arrested in Nebraska, “Who’s responsible?”

Of all the marijuana-related proposals, pot clubs probably drew the strongest opposition. Health and law enforcement officials joined forces to kill the bill.

The American Heart Association advanced a simple argument against the proposed clubs.

“It created an exemption from the Clean Air Act, which we strongly support,” said Rebecca Dubroff, the Heart Association’s Colorado lobbyist.

The Denver Health and Hospital Authority cited the same exemption. As a result, “we opposed that due to health concerns,” said spokesman Burke Speaker.

Industry lobbyists argued unsuccessfully that pot clubs would pose no more health risks than Colorado’s countless bars.

“We’re telling people they’re criminals for getting together and smoking marijuana while we are granting dozens of liquor licenses,” Sovine said.

Home delivery of marijuana, legalized in California, also died in Colorado in the face of stiff law enforcement warnings.

Drivers could get robbed, and “anywhere a robbery occurs, you’re putting the public at risk,” said Johnson, the Sheriffs of Colorado executive director.

Nationally, the marijuana industry has become more active in lobbying Congress but remains a minor player in comparison to other special interest groups, according to Center for Responsive Politics records.

Since 2014, three national marijuana and drug groups have spent about $3.5 million lobbying Congress and federal agencies.

By comparison, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce routinely spends at least $80 million a year on lobbyists.

In Colorado, though, the industry looms as a rising and persistent political force.

“Those marijuana bills that failed this session will be back, I assure you,” Johnson said.

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